What I’ve been reading (January – June 2021)

Here is a selection of the books, fiction and non-fiction, that I’ve enjoyed in recent months.

Top pick among my favourite genre of English psychological mystery novels is Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins. This held a special attraction for me because of its evocative descriptions of Oxford, where I lived for many years but have been unable to revisit since the pandemic began. Its unusual protagonist is a Scotswoman, a mathematics dropout who works as a nanny for academic families. She becomes closely attached to her latest charge, an eight year old girl neglected by her self-centred parents. The girl disappears, prompting a police investigation. Another good and original read was The Appeal by Janice Hallett, written mainly in the form of email exchanges among the legal team preparing an appeal against a murder conviction. It is set in a fictional town where the amateur dramatics society includes a large cast of players.

After watching the award-winning film Nomadland, I read the book of the same title on which it was based. The author, Jessica Bruder, is a journalist who spent three years observing and befriending some of the thousands of van dwellers who travel around America supporting themselves with seasonal jobs. The majority are single older people who, though often well qualified and skilled, have met with financial hardship and can no longer afford conventional housing. Their fortitude and ingenuity, as they navigate the practical challenges and endure what sound like appalling working conditions in campsites, Amazon warehouses and beet farms, are impressive. I found this book somewhat long and meandering, but its content was an eye-opener.

The only medical book in this selection is The Sleeping Beauties by neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, who has travelled round the world observing “culture-bound” epidemics of illnesses for which no medical explanation can be found. Such syndromes have been described by many different terms including “hysterical” “psychosomatic” and “functional”. The causes may be complex, but the author believes sociocultural factors to be more relevant than than individual psychopathology. I found the discussion sections at the end of each chapter rather heavy going, but I do know how difficult it is to write clearly about this subject. I liked the final section about the growing “over-medicalisation” of life problems in Western countries.

Two autobiographies are on this list. Father Joe: the man who saved my soul is by the late English satirist Tony Hendra, best known for his work on the Spitting Image TV programmes. As a result of a sexual transgression in his teens, he was sent to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight to meet the Benedictine monk who was to become his spiritual mentor throughout his colourful adult life. A very different memoir is One Woman’s War by Eileen Younghusband who, aged nineteen, volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and worked as a “filterer” transcribing Radar transmissions in WW2. After the war she was posted to Europe and among other duties worked in a liberated concentration camp. This beautifully written short book gives a modest account of an extraordinary life.

I recently wrote a separate post about Happy: why more or less everything is absolutely fine, Derren Brown’s take on Stoic philosophy and other things.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

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